WASHINGTON — Justice Department officials have indicated they do not believe the department can regulate the sale of gun bump stocks without congressional action, underscoring concern that an ongoing administrative review into that question is little more than an effort to slow-roll a politically divisive issue.
The Justice Department announced this month that it would review whether bump stocks — a firearm accessory that can turn a semiautomatic rifle into a full-fledged machine gun — are prohibited under a federal statute that outlaws fully-automatic weapons. The review was prompted by the October mass shooting in Las Vegas, where gunman Stephen Paddock outfitted semiautomatic weapons with bump stocks to kill 58 concertgoers on the strip.
But private and public comments from Justice Department officials following the October shooting suggest there is little appetite within the agency to regulate bump stocks, regardless of pressure from the Trump administration. Critics worry that whatever energy there is will fade over the holiday season.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the leading Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-author of a bill to ban the devices, noted that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has said “that current law does not allow the agency to ban or regulate bump-fire stocks.” The A.T.F. is the lead enforcement agency on the issue within the Justice Department.
“The A.T.F. director recently said the same thing to local police chiefs,” Ms. Feinstein said. “There’s no need for another review. It’s hard to believe this is anything other than another way for Republicans to stall congressional action.”
Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, said “the attorney general has stated clearly that we will go through the regulatory process that is required by law to determine whether or not certain bump stock devices are covered by the prohibition on the possession of firearm parts used exclusively in converting a weapon into a machine gun.”
“We are committed to a deliberate and thorough review,” he added.
The A.T.F. referred all questions regarding the bump stock review to the Justice Department.
Those hoping to limit bump stocks are losing what little momentum they had in Congress. A once-narrow, bipartisan effort to limit the sale of the device has diffused into other gun control measures after another mass shooting, on Nov. 5, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, highlighted the gaps in the government’s background check system.
Thomas Brandon, the acting director of the A.T.F., told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month that it was a “possibility” that bump stocks could be considered as a restricted device under standing regulations that ban machine guns, and that the A.T.F. could regulate them without action from Congress.
“If that wasn’t a possibility at the end, we wouldn’t initiate this process,” Mr. Brandon said of the review.
But since the Las Vegas shooting, Mr. Brandon and other A.T.F. officials have indicated repeatedly — both publicly and in private — that they do not believe that possibility exists. Instead, they say, legislation from Congress will be required.
In the week following the shooting, Justice Department officials — including the head of the department’s Firearms and Ammunition Technology division — met behind closed doors with Senate Judiciary Committee staff to discuss bump stock devices. According to some who either attended the meeting or were briefed on it, the Justice Department officials said they would not be able to take devices off shelves without new legislation from Congress.
Later in October, speaking to police chiefs at a law enforcement conference in Philadelphia, Mr. Brandon of the A.T.F. said his agency did not currently have the regulatory power to control sales of bump stocks. According to a letter sent to Congress by Art Acevedo, the Houston police chief, Mr. Brandon told the conference that new legislation would be required to allow them to regulate the device.
“I was seated next to the A.T.F. director at a recent meeting of Major Cities Chiefs when he advised the chiefs that new legislation will be required,” Mr. Acevedo wrote.
Despite the misgivings of its own officials, the Justice Department is still opting to work the bump stocks issue through the A.T.F. That route avoids the messier politics of seeking legislation in Congress, which could pit the administration against the powerful gun lobby.
The National Rifle Association has said it believes the bump stock question should be handled through the A.T.F., prompting once-amenable Republican lawmakers to back off legislative fixes.
The A.T.F. announced on Dec. 5 that it had sent a notice to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget about the policy review. Once posted in the federal registry, it will be open for comment from the public and gun industry for 30 days. It is expected to be posted next week.
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